x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Anger builds as Kurds hold funerals for Turkish air strike victims

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described the attack near the border village of Ortasu in Sirnak province as 'unfortunate' and 'saddening', noting half the dead were under 20 years old.

Thousands of Kurds attended funerals on Friday for 35 civilians killed in a Turkish air raid.
Thousands of Kurds attended funerals on Friday for 35 civilians killed in a Turkish air raid.

ISTANBUL // Thousands of mourners gathered in south-east Turkey yesterday for the funerals of 35 Kurdish civilians who were killed in a botched raid by Turkish military jets that mistook the group for Kurdish rebels based in Iraq.

Turkish television footage showed people, many weeping and lamenting the dead, as they gathered after the air strikes Wednesday that killed a group of smugglers along the border, one of the deadliest episodes in the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels who took up arms in 1984.

In a second day of civil unrest, stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with police who fired tear gas and water cannon in several cities in the mostly Kurdish south-east. Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, said 30 people were arrested in Diyarbakir, the region's biggest city. One person was injured and six arrested in Van city, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Trade unionists and other groups planned a protest in Istanbul later Friday. About 500 Iraqi Kurds denounced the air strikes in a rally in the city of Irbil in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.

Non-combatants have often been caught in the crossfire of Turkey's war, but one of the highest civilian tolls in a single day further soured relations between the government and ethnic Kurds who have long faced discrimination. A government campaign to reconcile with Kurds by granting them more rights has stalled amid a surge in fighting this year.

Dogan news agency video showed people digging graves on a hill near the south-east village of Gulyazi, home of some of the slain smugglers, and the funeral rites quickly took on a political tone. Thousands of people walked along a mountain path with coffins draped in red, yellow and green, the colours associated with Kurdish identity and the rebel group PKK.

Families at the funerals urged rebels to take revenge and they accused the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of being a "murderer", according to Firat.

A sombre Mr Erdogan described the attack near the border village of Ortasu in Sirnak province as "unfortunate" and "saddening", noting half the dead were under 20 years old. He said two F-16 planes bombed the area after images provided by drones showed a 40-person group approaching the border from the Iraqi side.

"It was revealed later that they were part of a group smuggling cigarettes, diesel fuel and such," he said.

Usually, according to Mr Erdogan, such smuggling is done by groups of just three to five people. He said at least two recent deadly attacks on military outposts near the Iraq-Turkey border were carried out by guerrillas who smuggled guns across the border on mules.

Four hours of official video footage of the raid will be examined, he said.

The prime minister criticised Turkey's Taraf newspaper, which has published reports of alleged military schemes and misconduct in the past, for a headline that read: "The state bombed its own people."

"No state would intentionally bomb its people," he said. "In the past, such things may have occurred but it is not possible for such a thing to occur during our administration."

The Kurdish conflict is a drag on Turkey's efforts to burnish its image as a regional model and advocate for democratic change in neighbouring countries such as Syria, where thousands have died since an uprising began in March.

The foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a chief architect of Turkey's rising profile, said the air strikes would be thoroughly investigated and should not be exploited for political gain. The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, said the inquiry would not be a whitewash.

"If there is any negligence, any fault or any intention, those who are responsible will be found and will endure the consequences," Mr Arinc said.

The military issued a message of condolence that was carried on Anadolu news agency. There was no apology, but such a public outreach is highly unusual in the Turkish armed forces, which are traditionally tight-lipped about operations.